craft review by Jen Jobart
The book I’m working on needs an ending. I know it, and I don’t know what to do about it, because I don’t know how to write one. So I decided to see how Anne Ursu did it in her masterful The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy. In this series of blog posts, I’ll share what I’ve learned with you.
The novel follows Marya, the sister of a boy who may be destined to become a sorcerer, ordained to protect the land from the Dread, a mysterious fog-like force that sows chaos wherever it descends. Marya does not fit the role of sister-to-a-wizard and is sent to Dragomir Academy, where she finds herself in the company of other girls who refuse to act according to the proper standards. As Marya and the others are trained to serve in sorcerers’ households, they begin to realize that the official stories they have been told may not hold the whole truth.
If you haven’t read The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, please stop reading now, go read the book, and come back. It’s a phenomenal book, and this blog post will completely ruin it for you. Please don’t read this post before you’ve read the book.
To write this post, I examined what multiple resources say about writing endings. I merged different approaches and added a few thoughts of my own. I’ve listed my sources where appropriate so that you can dig deeper if you’d like.
The Role of the Ending
The role of the third act is to wrap up the story and extract the meaning from it. The entire third act should hang together as a whole. It should provide closure to the story problem that is introduced in the first act, and should also mirror the first act.
I went back to my trusty Save the Cat beats to put the ending in context. It made sense to back up to the “All is Lost” beat, just before Act 3. The ending really starts there. Read on to find out the various Act 3 beats and how Anne Ursu fulfills them in The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy.
All is Lost
In the All is Lost beat, circumstances couldn’t be worse and the character is at her lowest.
In The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy, the protagonist Marya finds herself locked in the sanitarium, drugged, when the Dread arrives. Instead of protecting the girls at the Academy, High Count Arev runs away.
Dark Night of the Soul
I’ve recently changed my perception of the Dark Night of the Soul beat. I used to relate it to depression. I understood it as a time when the character is overwhelmed by everything that has happened, loses hope, and checks out.
I still think that’s a part of it, but I don’t think that comprises the entire beat. After reading Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore (a self-help book that also taught me a lot about writing craft) I now see the Dark Night of the Soul as the chrysalis stage. It shows the internal metamorphosis from who the character was at the beginning of the story to who she is at the end. Outwardly, it’s a quiet beat, but inwardly, the character is grappling with the irrefutable fact that she must change.
In Troubled Girls, Marya and Elana are walking back toward the school, slowly, in robes and slippers, as the Dread closes in and the night falls. This chapter is heavy in interiority. Conversation is stilted and hesitant. Both girls are clearly deep in thought.
Break into 3
In Break into 3, the protagonist uses new information or insight to try again.
In Troubled Girls, Marya and Elana return to Dragomir Academy to find that High Count Arev and the Headmaster disappear and save themselves and leave the girls of Dragomir Academy to face the Dread on their own.
In researching the Finale, I remembered that I’d learned the breakdown for the finale from a Save the Cat class I took a few years back, so I dug out my notes. Jessica Brody has a good blog post on this as well.
Point 1: Gathering the Team
The hero must gather together the people she needs to win.
In Troubled Girls, Luka drives up in a carriage. Marya’s former neighbor and mentor Madame Bandu has been arrested and has told Dr. Bandu that Marya is in trouble and that he should send Luka to help her. Luka arrives and tells Marya it wasn’t her fault that her baby brother Pieter died, a weight she has been carrying.
Point 2: Storm the Castle
They spring into action.
Marya convinces her teacher Madame Rosetti that the Dread is coming and they have to start evacuating everyone.
Point 3: High Tower Surprise
Things get suddenly worse.
Marya realizes that the girls from her hall are not with those evacuating. The Rose Hall girls don’t hear the evacuation bell because Mayra took the clapper off, so she has to go get them.
Point 4: Dig Down Deep
The hero decides to forge ahead anyway.
Marya and Luka hold hands and unite, after years of their parents trying to pull them apart.
Point 5: Execution of the New Plan
Using everything she has learned from everything that has happened, the hero moves forward with a new plan.
The girls use their own magic to defeat the Dread, and realize that the school has been a lie. They’ve been told that only men can wield magic, and the school has been designed to keep them from recognizing and exercising their own magic.
A Masterful Ending
From the All is Lost moment through the Climax, The Troubled Girls of Dragomir Academy hits all the beats. The beauty of the book, though, is that on my first read I just kept turning pages. The beats made for a satisfying read, one where I wanted to keep going, but didn’t draw attention to themselves on the page. The story felt organic, even though a closer look shows that it was carefully crafted. And isn’t that what we’re all shooting for? A story that is un-put-downable?
I’m discovering that one way to get to that is to study how other authors craft their stories according to the Act 3 beats, and work to craft my own the same way.
Stay tuned for next week’s post on the denouement and final image of the ending!
For more on Save the Cat Beat Sheets, check out these posts!
Jen Jobart writes middle grade fiction and is always sending characters she loves on dangerous adventures. She is an active member of the SCBWI and has studied writing for children through Stanford’s Continuing Studies program. When Jen’s not writing, she’s outside gardening and raising chickens at her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her at www.jenjobart.com.